It is not okay for North Carolina Pride to violently silence LGBTQ people of color,” the letter begins.
Titled “Not My Pride: An Open Letter to NC Pride from the Black Queer Woman You Assaulted,” the letter appeared Sept. 30 on the website of 28-year-old musician and activist Laila Nur, who lives in Durham.
Nur alleged that four days earlier, an NC Pride official had used physical force to silence her as she was reading a statement with a Black Lives Matter group in Durham’s NC Pride Parade. Then, she claimed, Pride officials had the police remove her group from the parade.
“Within a minute of receiving the microphone, I was assaulted,” Nur wrote. “A Pride affiliate stepped on my foot so I was unable to move, grabbed my arm and ripped the microphone out of my hand while yelling words I do not recall. I let go without struggle. I was in complete shock and almost in tears.”
Nur contextualized the incident in terms of broader discrimination within the LGBTQ community, against people of color in general and transgender ones in particular.
“From social dating sites to Pride, and up the ranks of many LGBTQ organizations, we literally and figuratively see—’White Only,’” she wrote. She requested an apology from the aggressor and the Pride Committee of North Carolina, the Durham-based company that holds the parade.
Since 1981, the NC Pride Parade has been an important, celebratory flashpoint for equal rights in a state where they’re often in peril. Nur has participated many times as a marcher, musician or performer with the radical drum corps Cakalak Thunder. Her fond memories and sense of safety, both now marred, make the pain of the experience linger.
“We were really hoping to show up to a space that once felt very inclusive, where we felt valued and heard,” Nur told the INDY. “Even if we were bringing up things challenging to them, we hoped it would spur discussion.”
Nur’s account spread widely on black and LGBTQ activist social media. It was shared more than 200 times from her Facebook page and many hundreds more through others’. It was picked up by blogs such as Afropunk and Awkward Black Girl.
Still, almost a month later, NC Pride has yet to respond to the charges, either publicly or to Nur. After the blog went up, NC Pride director John Short declined to give a phone interview or identify the staff in question. Instead, he emailed a statement to the INDY that broadly refuted Nur’s account, saying it rested on “false allegations of violence and racism.”
The conflict was brief and chaotic, so it isn’t surprising that the details are hotly disputed. Still, Nur’s story nonetheless hints at underlying racial fractures within the broader LGBTQ community.
“Trans and queer people of color experience larger and unique forms of violence because of those intersectional identities,” she says. “Even LGBTQ spaces are often not welcoming, and sometimes blatantly racist, for black and brown folks.”
What is not in dispute is that a white NC Pride official and a queer black activist faced off over a microphone at a time when violence against LGBTQ people of color is on the rise.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, transgender women of color are among the likeliest victims of hate crimes in the country. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reports that LGBTQ people of color are more likely to be murdered than LGBTQ people as a whole.
In this context of unequal risk, the confrontation cannot be characterized as evenly matched, and whatever happened, NC Pride is remiss not to address it.
Nur is most troubled by the lack of communication—during or after the confrontation—with NC Pride, whose director won’t acknowledge that anything happened at all.
“There was no conversation before I felt someone grab me,” Nur says. “It’s not like I was showing up in a rage. I would have been receptive to it. I’m still 100 percent open, wanting that ownership back. If [NC Pride] ever reached out to me, I would respond instantly. It’s this lingering thing throughout the community until then.”
On Saturday, Sept. 26, the parade was a blaze of color in the gray rain, winding through a flag-shaped route that began and ended on Duke’s East Campus, taking in blocks of Main, Broad, Green and Ninth.
Early in the afternoon, the Black Lives Matter group neared the announcer’s stand at Broad and Main, in front of the Mad Hatter Café. They were more than 30 strong, chanting and playing drums, carrying a banner with the credo, “No pride for some of us without liberation for all of us” in white and pink and “We Can’t Breathe” in black on the bottom. They had prepared a statement speaking for queer and transgender people of color.
Serena Sebring, a member of the group, asked the announcer, a white man with blond hair in a striped tank-top, if they could read it. One of Nur’s Facebook friends identified him, in a photo, as “Duane.” (As he was a casual acquaintance, they didn’t know his last name.)
Sebring says Duane gave the group two minutes to speak, a microphone and a warning: “Don’t say anything offensive.”
Sebring began to read, “We disrupt your Pride so that you are reminded that our Pride also matters and that we are proud of our roots.” According to Nur, the parade’s audience didn’t seem upset by the blip in the proceedings.
“When we first stepped out with this message, it was amazing the way people responded, clapping and cheering,” Nur says. “People were gathering, looking excited and ready for what we were about to say, and it felt really good. So it was super shocking to be shut down in such an aggressive way.”
Sebring says she had barely begun to speak when the announcer reached for the microphone. Elainiel Baldwin, another member of the group, felt concerned about how quickly he was moving toward Sebring.
“I told him I was going to finish, and he backed away,” Sebring says. “After I read my sentence, I tried to hand the microphone to Laila, and that’s when someone grabbed her, took the microphone from her and stepped on her feet.”
In her blog post, Nur initially identified this person as Duane. But according to Sebring and Baldwin, the announcer only reached for it; it was another man who took it.
“A shorter guy in a traffic vest and khakis tiptoed around Laila and pounced on her,” Baldwin says. “It’s like Duane started the action of taking the microphone and then the other guy continued that action.”
Nur agreed that, in the confusion, she may have mistaken the person in the traffic vest for the announcer, whom her attention was focused on. She soon updated her blog to accuse an unnamed “Pride affiliate” of assault instead.
“My first reaction when [Duane] stepped toward me was, whoa, this person is bigger than me and I’m a little afraid,” Nur explains. “It was not clear to me what he was doing; I just saw him coming toward me in an aggressive manner. My reaction was to back up in self-defense, and then I felt people grabbing me.”
Nur, too, had barely started to read when the microphone was wrenched from her hands, without warning. She then took a megaphone from the Black Lives Matter organizer, who goes by Q, and addressed the crowd with the same sentence that would begin her blog post. She says she saw a police officer walking toward her, saying, “Go.” Q, fearing for the group’s safety, led them away.
“To me, that didn’t sound like, ‘OK, guys, go ahead, keep on marching,’” Nur says. “It sounded like go. I’m not a very confrontational person, so I wanted to get as far away as possible.”
At this point, an outline of the incident seems fairly clear: Perceiving a threat in the word “disrupt,” NC Pride staff overreacted to an unexpected situation, perhaps fearing a Bernie Sanders-like shutdown.
And in fact, the group did intend to disrupt the parade, if only briefly.
“Were we showing up to completely shut it down? Not at all,” Nur says. “But did we want a few minutes, and did it slow everyone else down? Absolutely. We wanted to stand here and have the attention of the folks, with the support of the organizers, to say, ‘These are really important things about how often black and brown and trans and queer folks are excluded from the overall LGBT community.’”
Regardless of who took the mic, or how forcefully, the stakes remain the same. Queer and transgender people of color played historically important roles in the fight for LGBTQ rights that fostered institutions such as Pride. A generation later, queer and transgender people of color experienced something traumatic in the parade, and no one at Pride will talk to them about it.
Who was the man in the traffic vest? Nur couldn’t remember what he looked like, and Short was not willing to name him.
In his first email statement, Short contended that the group had finished reading and refused to move on when the announcer reached for the microphone, that the police were never asked to intervene and that no one was assaulted or hurt.
“As a registered participant, they had agreed to not stop or slow the progress of the parade,” he wrote. “We asked that the Black Lives Matter group rejoin the parade. As other groups continued past, we also asked for our microphone back. We were at first ignored, but our announcer retrieved our microphone so the rest of the parade could be announced.”
Durham Police Department spokesperson Willie Glenn agrees that there was no use of force and that exiting the parade was the group’s choice.
On Oct. 15, after speaking with Nur and others, the INDY emailed Short to ask again for a phone interview and connections to witnesses. He wrote back, “THIS IS THE NEUTRAL AND DIRECT WITNESS TO WHAT DID NOT HAPPEN ACCORDING TO NUR AND FRIENDS,” with the phone number of R.E. Gaddy Jr., a lieutenant in the DPD.
In another email, as he continued to ignore interview requests, Short claimed it was standard procedure to warn speakers not to say anything offensive. He insisted that the Black Lives Matter group gave its full statement and indicated that his prior email was the extent of his plans to respond to what he called a “false controversy.”
Asked about the man in the traffic vest and khaki pants, he responded, “There was no such volunteer in that clothing description at that location at that time that day.”
Gaddy confirmed that there was a brief struggle over the microphone, but downplayed its seriousness, characterizing it as equal-force.
“I’m not sure who did what,” he says. “The young lady refused to give the microphone back, and John said something to her, and the next thing you know they have it back again.”
Gaddy says that Short asked him to intervene when the group refused to move on.
“We were standing right there and no one said they were assaulted,” he says. “When we told them they needed to move, they elected to step out of the parade, and that was the last we saw of them.”
Was it possible that the man in the traffic vest, as described by Nur and her friends, was John Short?
“Probably, yes, that might have been John, exactly,” Gaddy says. “Yeah, that was probably John, because I remember he had a traffic vest on.”
Nur’s partner, Saba Taj, describes the man who took the microphone as white, with very light hair. He was on the shorter side, probably in his 50s, wearing a reflective vest, glasses, a baseball cap and khaki pants. Another member of the group, Tasseli McKay, provides a similar description: He was 5’7″ or shorter, at least 50, a little stocky, wearing a reflective vest.
When shown pictures of Short, Taj, who was off to the side of the incident, said she was almost certain it was the same person who struggled with Nur. McKay got a much better look at him, because she tried to shield Nur with her body as he rushed toward them.
“He was angry, in our faces,” she says. “He was yelling, ‘Absolutely not, you can’t do this, you have to move on, you’re going to get fined $450.’ The police were respectfully standing by until he whispered in their ears.” Seeing pictures of Short, McKay says, “That’s definitely him, 100 percent sure.”
A photo one of the Black Lives Matter marchers took shows the man in question on the scene of the incident. He’s standing at the intersection of Broad and Main, his back to the camera, face in profile. He is stocky, and much shorter than the police officer he’s talking to. Light hair can be seen under his baseball cap. He wears a fluorescent yellow reflective vest. He looks a lot like John Short.
The INDY emailed Short to tell him several witnesses thought he was the person who struggled with Nur. (His prior answer to a less-informed query about the man in the traffic vest—”no such volunteer in that clothing description”—was technically true in any case, because Short is Pride’s director, not a volunteer, and the picture shows a man in blue jeans, not khakis.)
“This is another complete lie … along with so many others … I never ever touched the microphone the entire day … lies lies lies,” he wrote back.
He did not answer or return a phone call.
It’s impossible to be certain Short took the microphone from Nur, or what was going through his mind if he did. He claims to be sympathetic to the cause of Black Lives Matters. He concluded his original statement by allowing that “the Pride Committee completely understands the necessity to confront and to demonstrate for civil good … there is always room in our hearts for such an important and timely message. If this incident can make the message of Black Lives Matter resonate with even one more person, we will be proud.”
But this is hard to square with his refusal to discuss the incident.
Alexis Pauline Gumbs, a teacher and writer who earned a doctorate at Duke with a dissertation on queer black feminism, was outraged by Nur’s story.
“Even if that particular official or the organizers in general might not want to hear about the ongoing racism in the LGBTQ movement, to directly attack the speaker? To me it means that the NC Pride Parade is not a safe space for queer people of color like me, despite our work to build this community,” Gumbs says.
Gumbs calls the incident “a disgrace to the legacy” of groundbreaking activists like Mandy Carter, one of the people of color who were instrumental in building the kinds of local LGBTQ coalitions that fostered wider acceptance and helped Pride thrive.
The Black Lives Matter group’s statement (posted in full at the bottom of this story) would have paid tribute to these spiritual forebears, many of whom were part of the Stonewall uprising in 1969, which helped to launch the Pride movement.
“With all the coalition work that has happened here in Durham to connect the causes of racial justice and LGBTQ liberation,” Gumbs says, “this is completely unacceptable and shows that there are people here who would rather be racist than free, and they want to use the structures and institutions that people of color have helped build in order to enforce racism and silence.”
The Black Lives Matter statement is also critical of Pride’s sponsorship and leadership.
“We were showing up in this festival sponsored by 300 Swift apartments, things that are contributing to removing a lot of black and brown folks from Durham, including LGBTQ ones,” Nur says. “What does it actually mean to say ‘black lives matter’ but get funding for things that are harming black people? When a lot of the leadership in Pride communities across the country are cisgender white gay folks, you’re going to see a lot of systems of oppression we’re fighting as a gay community being replicated within it. If we start including more LGBTQ people of color in these sponsorship conversations, that’s the only way we’re going to have intersectional dialogue.”
To Gumbs, the incident reveals ongoing tensions beneath celebrated national moments in mainstream LGBTQ rights.
“The hypocrisy is clear in this moment, and it shows that, in fact, marriage, inclusion in the state and gaining the privileges straight white people have is not actually about love or freedom for all people,” Gumbs says. “It is about white LGBTQ [people] scrambling for the privileges other white people have at any cost. I wish more people could open themselves up to the full liberation that black queer women like Laila are envisioning for our entire society.”
The Black Lives Matter group has certainly started conversations, which was its original goal. But for Nur, that victory is tainted by continuing fear, doubt, feelings of exclusion and many unanswered questions.
“Immediately after it happened, I was really scared for my physical safety,” she says. “I’ve been distant since then, like a dreamy big bubble of what the gay community is and always has been had popped. I’ve been sitting with a lot of sadness. There’s an event at the Carrack I want to go to with my partner, and I have this looming fear. What if I go and one of them is there? How will it feel? Will I identify them? Will they identify me? Will they treat me weird? It’s shattered my feelings about the gay community and my feeling of safety being here.”
Sayaka Matsuoka contributed reporting to this article, which appeared in print with the headline “Pride and prejudice.”
Black Lives Matter’s unread full statement
We disrupt your Pride so that you are reminded that our Pride also matters and that we are proud of our roots. We are proud to have ancestors and kindred in folks like Miss Major, Stormé DeLarverie, Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, who actively demonstrated what resistance meant by putting their bodies and their lives on the line for our collective survival. Our Pride was birthed by our transgender and queer ancestors and kindred in a storm of fire and fishnets where Black and Brown people chased the police off of our turf.
NC Pride in Durham is sponsored by Wells Fargo, which in 2012 loaned $785 million dollars to Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), a large corporation that contracts with prisons and ICE. You would have to work more than 108 thousand hours at 7.25 dollars an hour to make 785 million dollars. Greensboro Pride is sponsored by Bank of America, which has multi-million dollar contracts with the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Your Pride is sponsored by the banks and corporations that cage, murder, and enslave Black and Brown queer and trans folk.
We interrupt your regularly scheduled state-sanctioned celebration to remind you that we are not ready to celebrate the countless murders of our transgender Black women. We are not ready to give into silence and privilege and respectability politics that only continue to fill the pockets of some while depleting the pockets of many.
Our kindred are locked back in the Durham County Jail—denied urgent medical care, reading material, clean drinking water, or even the fundamental right to sunlight. We are being tased in Harris Teeter, dragged out of our homes and hunted down, then violently persecuted and shot at on the streets for having no homes to go to. We interrupt your Pride because Zora Neale Hurston taught us that if we are silent about our pain, you will kill us and say we enjoyed it.
Today, we are here, standing strong, as a reminder that we will no longer stand silent and will hold those in power and those that perpetuate and profit off of Black and Brown murders, incarceration, bodies, and love. Our people—queer trans Black and Brown people—are not an afterthought, your tokens, or your objects on your websites. Divest from prisons and big banks, or we shut you down.
—Statement by a queer-trans-people-of-color-led coalition including Greensboro Queer People of Color Collective, Durham and NC Southerners On New Ground (SONG), El Cambio, Get EQUAL and other organizations across the state.